Posts from the ‘Denver Restaurants’ Category

Playing the Cab Franc Guessing Game at Duo Denver

Duo Denver

Bobby Rayburn is Duo's GM, and the friendly face behind the bar.

Psst. Here’s a little secret that might score you a free glass of wine next time you’re dining at the bar of Duo in the food-centric Highland neighborhood of Denver: Order the elk, and then answer “it’s from Colorado” to the question that follows.

General Manager Bobby Rayburn, who often tends the bar, has been known to pour the Mesa Park Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Franc for those who just ordered the elk, offering to buy it for them if they can guess its origin.

“They usually guess France, Provence or whatever,” he says. “I tell them Colorado, and they’re floored by it. It’s rich. That fact alone makes people think of France, and it’s good, it’s really good. That makes people assume France as well.”

He admits if too many people read this and go in armed with knowledge of his bar game, he might have to stop offering the giveaway bet. Probably not. Rayburn is big on interacting with those who sit at the bar (which is one of the most enjoyable ways to enjoy a brunch or dinner there). Considering Duo is big on local ingredients, slinging local brands is just something he likes to do, too.

“It gives me an opportunity to educate and inform them that there’s good wine in Colorado,” he says.

This coming from an admittedly beer-first kind of guy. “I drink beer just about every day. Beer is generally my go to,” he says. “I prefer wine with food. Quiet evening in with my girl is usually wine. Then it’s usually back to beer at the bar unless we’re at a good cocktail bar.”

Rayburn has been with Duo since it opened six years ago, jumping behind the bar from the get go, a part of a restaurant he’d never worked before. Well the switch from server to GM/bartender has been a welcome one.

“It’s the atmosphere. It’s the energy,” he says. “People sit at the bar, and they are out to have a good time. They are usually open minded and they are down to learn. I like to educate as much as possible and get people to try new things.”

Part of the reason Rayburn came to Duo — besides the chance to serve as general manager — was the concept.

Beyond being the the first stellar restaurant to open on the east side of the Highlands, an area that has become the epicenter for good food in Denver in the last few years, it focused on a local menu and being part of the neighborhood. It hasn’t strayed from there, producing a great seasonal American menu (serving perhaps the best brunch in Denver, too) that’s taken home numerous local and regional accolades along the way including being named one of the 25 best restaurants in Denver by 5280 magazine in 2011 (check out all the awards here).

Mesa Park and a few select other Colorado wines, several local spirits, and a 100 percent Colorado beer list play into the concept on the liquid side. The Mesa Park Cabernet Franc is a recent addition to the list (by the glass, $9, and bottle, $34).

It being the only Colorado wine by the glass allows for Rayburn’s guess-the-region game. But he also just loves it with the Elk Medallions ($26) on the menu right now, a dish that features a butternut squash puree and port reduction.

“The wine and that dish where meant to go together,” he says. “It’s got that crazy, crazy pepper on the nose and in the body. The pepper contrasts the sweetness of the butternut squash puree; how rich and deep the wine is makes it go really with the elk.”

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Get a glass of Mesa Park Cab Franc at Duo, 2413 W. 32nd Ave., Denver.

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The Evolving Frank Bonanno and How Mesa Park Landed on the Mizuna Wine List

Frank Bonanno of Mizuna Denver

Frank Bonanno, the acclaimed chef behind Denver's Mizuna and a half-dozen other restaurants. Courtesy photo.

In the world where chefs are celebrities, Frank Bonanno holds his own — in Denver and the U.S. His lobster mac ‘n cheese won a Food Network challenge a few years back, and he’s seemingly always on the radar for an esteemed James Beard Foundation nomination for his work as both a culinary guru and restaurateur extraordinaire.

Not to mention his Bonanno Concepts consists of six of the more popular restaurants in Denver — with a seventh offering, Russell Smokehouse, slated to open this fall. The cuisine he pushes out ranges dramatically in style and price point.

There’s the tony Italian eatery Luca d’Italia, the small plates happy hour gem Osteria Marco, the Japanese fusion noodle house Bones, the swank cocktail speakeasy Green Russell, the paté house Lou’s Food Bar and Wednesday’s Pie that cares about one thing — pie.

But it’s a little obvious where his heart truly lies, with Mizuna. This Governor’s Park staple has been serving some of the best French-inspired foie gras, veal, lobster, lamb and aforementioned lobster mac ‘n cheese for the last decade.

“Mizuna is the food that I absolutely love,” he says. “To me, maybe because it’s the first one, but I love what we have been able to accomplish in the last 10 years.”

Always Evolving

Bonanno and his marquee restaurant haven’t become complacent with its early successes. The menu continues to stay fresh, and the last four years have brought an increased attention to what is now one of Denver’s premier wine programs.

“Wine is the soul of the food; it enhances it,” Bonanno says. “It can bring you to a different feeling while you are eating.”

But only if the right wines are on the list, which is why Mizuna is one of just a handful of Denver restaurants that employs a full-time sommelier.

“One of the biggest changes for us was the way we looked at our wine,” Bonanno says. “We brought in a sommelier. With that, you have the ability to do more boutiquey, better wines because you have someone who can explain them.”

And find them. (The Mesa Park 2006 Cabernet Franc, for example, an estate wine that landed an exclusive spot on the wine list earlier this summer).

Adding cases of often hard-to-find selections showcases Mizuna evolving on the beverage front, which helps the ever-evolving menu and the restaurant itself stay atop the city’s culinary mindset.

It also highlights the savviness of Bonanno, who continues to churn out acclaimed restaurants that fill seats nightly. Ten years ago, he won diners with his culinary prowess. Now he’s banking his success on his other attributes while letting trusted employees make major decisions regarding food, spirits and wine.

“I’ve changed,” he says. “I don’t cook as much as I would like to. I still cook quite a bit, but I have had to take a real role as father and confidant. I mean there’s 300 people in the company.”

A Tough List to Crack

Hence the wine program being left, almost solely, in the hands of wine director Lynn Whittum. Bonanno needs a world-class wine list and understands the importance of having a dedicated cork dork to do the heavy lifting.

From a winery’s perspective, this is a blessing in many ways, but that extra attention to detail means an experienced and dedicated palate paying a lot more attention to what goes on the menu — and what doesn’t. To put it simply, getting a bottle on the Mizuna wine list is about as easy as finding a restaurant that serves more than an obligatory Colorado wine on its menu. It’s a competitive process.

Whittum identifies a need — a sauvignon blanc wholesaling for about $25, for example — and lets upward of 18 wine reps know about it. Then, it’s a taste off. Whittum, Bonanno and several staff members will often take part, sipping on more than 60 selections to figure out which one makes the cut.

“It’s not an easy thing to get a placement here,” Bonanno says. “Bring (Whittum) something thoughtful, bring her something good. You could taste 64 wines just to get one.”

Mesa Park’s 2006 Cabernet Franc did just that. Mizuna needed a Bordeaux-style red that could sell on the list for under $40 (the Franc is on the list for $38). Sixty some-odd came through the door, and the Cab Franc was the last standing.

“It beat out 60 other wines in the category; she likes it,” Bonanno says. “We truly do it because she thinks it’s the best wine for the spot.”

Not bad for a small, 500-case operation from Palisade.

“Being a vineyard owner is a dream come true for me,”  says Chuck Price, proprietor and winemaker at Mesa Park Vineyards. “I was a student in San Luis Obispo in the late 70s and did a senior project in college about owning and operating a vineyard and winery — it didn’t happen at that time.  Now, I have retired from a career in aerospace and find myself in the wine business with my family 30-plus years later. Getting one of my wines on such an exclusive wine list tells me maybe I should have made the jump much earlier.”

Mizuna Nosh with Mesa Park’s Franc

Try the Mesa Park 2006 Cabernet Franc with the Boneless Quail Pastilla appetizer (a delectable starter with marcona almonds and a Tempranillo demi glace) or any beef, pork or lamb entrée on the menu. Bonanno points to the braised lamb shoulder with white beans. “It’s a good hearty wine it has some of those characteristics of a Bordeaux. It holds up to all those same flavors.”

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